Saturday, February 28, 2015

Columbine and the Media

I came across Columbine by Dave Cullen on my dad's bookshelf this weekend, and desperate for a book, I decided to crack it open – well some of it. The book is like 450 pages long, and quite frankly, is terrifying. I don't remember this event. When the shooting happened, I was 5 going on 6, and the world was pretty different. Cars had cassette players. People used VCRs and "rewind" actually meant something.

Cullen describes the tragic shooting in harrowing detail. The book's descriptions, memories and eyewitness accounts were made possible by a rapidly growing technology: the cell phone. Several students in Columbine's affluent surrounding community had them, and used them to call the media, mainly television stations. This really hadn't happened before. Hostages were calling reporters and talking about events while their lives were in immediate danger.

This presented several problems. Students trapped inside the school could potentially compromise their location. Reporters could reveal too much about police plans, and if the shooters were watching, could thwart law enforcement. Interviewing witnesses in crisis often compromises honest, truthful and sensitive reporting.

Which spelled disaster in the wake of tragedy.

"It would take years before the detective team would explain why," Cullen writes. "The public couldn't wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated."

Speculation by news media made it more difficult for investigators to determine what actually happened. Newspapers were printing headlines that mis-numbered the victims and shooters, and interviews with unreliable sources – from people who had never met the Eric and Dylan before the tragedy – mischaracterized the assailants' motives.

"This was the first major hostage standoff of the cell phone age, and they (the cops/everyone) had never seen anything like it," Cullen writes.

I'd like to think 16 years later, the cell phone hasn't made hostage situations more dangerous, and that reporters have gotten better at balancing what the public needs to know, has a right to know and determining when they need to know it. But news hasn't slowed down. The smartphone and social networking have probably made accurate reporting of violent acts more difficult. The Boston Bombing comes to mind.

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